Establishing the use case: how to convince the market of the value of 5G
Editor Philip Mason talks to BT enterprise lead Jeremy Spencer about the company’s efforts to engage mission-/business critical verticals in the development of next generation broadband.
This is clearly good news for anyone with an interest in critical communications, taking us as it apparently does one step nearer the roll-out of next generation broadband across an anticipated plethora of verticals. These include, but are by no means limited to, industry, manufacturing, utilities, as well as public safety.
While availability of the technology - or more specifically in this case, the standards - are vital to the success of 5G however, equally important is buy-in from the sector. This includes not only manufacturers, but also the aforementioned verticals themselves, many of which are understandably quite risk averse when it comes to replacing tried and tested communications.
One major provider involved in not just facilitating 5G, but also taking an active role in promoting its potential is BT in the UK. This has taken the form of a series of trials in which the company's newly rolled-out 5G network has been put to work within specific business critical environments, in particular health and transport/logistics.
From ‘nice to have’ to critical investment
Focussing on the latter sector in particular, last October saw BT staging a product demonstration at the Titanic Museum in Belfast, showcasing collaborative work carried out with the city’s harbour management. Having arranged temporary coverage (via a mast at the end of the original Titanic runway), the company used non-standalone 5G to enable the harbour’s operations team to inspect a crane while simultaneously receiving instructions in real time through an augmented reality headset.
Speaking of the importance of the demonstration and others like it, BT enterprise lead Jeremy Spencer said: “When it comes to something like 5G, the first step [in convincing the market] is the Belfast Harbour-type showcases, which demonstrate the art of the possible. The next step is onboarding partners such as [mixed reality company] VRtuoso, which we continue to do.
“We have a part of BT that is designed to embrace early technologies like this, and then accelerate them. We’re just starting to answer the question of how we bring these capabilities in-house, and then put a service wrap-around them. That will be crucial for the exploitation of 5G.”
For the few who maybe aren’t aware, 5G holds the promise of any number of benefits, existing in both the consumer and business environments. The most widely known of these, at least amongst the public, is vastly increased data rates, something which is already observable through the various consumer offerings now becoming available across the world.
The other two headline benefits meanwhile are incredibly low latency, alongside the ability to provide virtualised network ‘slices,’ in order to deliver bespoke services across a variety of different contexts. These latter functionalities in particular will be crucial to successful deployments in the verticals mentioned above, for instance in the operation of completely autonomous vehicles.
Going back to the subject of convincing the market, what conditions will need to be in place for the technology to live up to its apparent transformative potential? At what point does it go from ‘nice to have’ to critical investment?
“From my point of view, it’s simply a matter of demonstrating to companies how the technology will benefit them in real terms,” says Spencer. “A lot of organisations certainly are interested in the potential of 5G, but they haven’t actually worked out what they can do with it.
“They obviously want to embrace innovation, and they’re at the point where they’re coming to us with specific problems which they hope the technology might be able to solve. That’s really what the Belfast demonstration sprang out of, as well as other trials such as our ‘connected ambulance’ work with University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust.”
He continues: “One clear benefit when it comes to 5G is the ability to roll-out private standalone networks, as distinct from the network slicing piece. Having the ability to put in small cells, their own packet core and so on could potentially be hugely beneficial.
“There are a number of drivers for that, particularly within industries where they’re looking to automate machine control. The level of security is far higher as well, because data doesn’t have to leave the premises.”
For Spencer, another thing which may need to be overcome in the journey towards 5G is potential reticence from those on the ground, particularly in the more risk-averse industries hinted at above. Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to have been an issue during the BT trials, with the Belfast Harbour engineers and the technicians picking things up “just like that.”
“You always imagine you’re going to get some resistance, but their attitude was very positive,” he says. “To have that kind of support while working around the harbour was a massive confidence boost for them, I think. Again, people will always embrace new things if they can see the benefit.”
As well as the attitude of those on the ground however, there also exists another - potentially even more sizeable - elephant in the room, relating to the current global financial and political situation. Who knows what the investment landscape will look like post COVID-19, after all. And, with 5G now being used as a political football, how will the market respond to certain overseas governments taking it upon themselves to dictate the details of individual national roll outs?
While Spencer refused to be drawn on the impact of what might euphemistically be referred to as ‘the Huawei situation’, BT has put out a statement providing reassurance in terms of the network itself. It reads: ‘BT currently estimates that full compliance with the revised [government] proposals would require additional activity, both in removing and replacing Huawei equipment from BT’s existing mobile network, and in excluding Huawei from the 5G network that BT continues to build.
‘However, now we have clarity on the timing [by the end of 2027], it is estimated that these costs can be absorbed within BT’s initial estimated implementation cost of £500 million.”
According to 3GPP, Release 16 is a considerable step forward from its predecessor, addressing issues such as efficiency and operation (self-optimising networks, MIMO and so on), as well as expanding the potential for use across different verticals. It will be interesting to see the degree to which capability really does drive investment (and vice versa), in the months and years to come.
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Editor, Critical Communications Portfolio
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